The last and only time I was here was in the early nineties on a tour with the Hong Kong Ice Hockey Team. Long before there was a ski slope there was an ice rink in this sand swept winter wonderland. I had heard there had been a few changes so I figured now was as good a time as any to take a look around. Having a complete aversion to shopping, I knew the scope of my visit was going to be limited, considering that nine of the ten official things to do in Dubai involve malls.
Sure enough I quickly found myself in the mostly deserted largest shopping mall in the world. After a quick 15 minute stroll through the cavernous edifice, I decided to make a conscientious effort to learn a little about the city’s culture and was shocked to discover that Dubai is officially a Muslim state, considering its streets are lined with endless monuments dedicated to Mammon.
However, if you look very closely you can still see vestiges of a rich and ancient civilization. For instance most of the drivers of the Ferrari’s and Lamborghini’s are still wearing the traditional dishdasha. And the faithful are still called to prayer 5 times daily – on top-of-the-line Bose sound systems. I guess this is what US$150 a barrel for oil accomplished in the run up to the financial crisis and the subsequent near bankruptcy of the Emirate.
But to me there is an unmistakable feeling of a contrived and ephemeral place. Unlike Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai, much of the affluence around Dubai seems unearned.
As I am flying out of town, I can’t help but gaze down at the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa. From all reports, it is largely bereft of tenants and it’s impossible not too wonder if all this will be reclaimed by the desert sands once the Middle East’s oil reserves are drained.
On route to Yemen, I have been told there are little of Dubai’s modern trappings in this besieged country. Apparently it’s the new front on terror as well as a haven for Al Qaeda and the original homeland of the Bin Laden clan. Apparently.
The mostly empty Airbus floats past a range of rugged mountains on final approach to Sana’a International Airport and the only other western passenger on board is a burly lad with a crew cut dressed for a business meeting sporting a laptop and reading a copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. It’s safe to assume he’s not on a package tour.
I step out of the aircraft into a landscape that can’t be that much different from Mars. Dry, arid, windswept and sun ravaged: just looking at it makes me thirsty.
As I was about to board the bus to the terminal, an eardrum-shattering crescendo of engines and after-burners shook the air as a fighter aircraft urgently hurtles down the runway. Of course none of this should be a surprise after the Wiki leak claim of U.S. direct involvement in bombing runs in Yemen. Maybe the pilot is Roger Ramjet disguised in beard and turban off to save the day.
I battle through a throng of tourist-starved touts, most of whom have sizeable daggers, or jambiya, threateningly strapped to their waists. It’s quite the scene considering that by this time of the day, most of the men in Sana’a are jacked up on the mildly narcotic chew they refer to as kat rendering them, hopefully, harmless and comfortably numb.
I have always had an issue with hotel security gates. They are almost always a flimsy exercise in pointlessness. Does anyone really think that a determined and mad bomber is going to stop and ask permission before crashing through a gate that looks as if it were made from shopping carts welded together in a garage?
But my skepticism is rendered moot when confronted with the massive triple barrier at the Movenpick Hotel. This has to be ‘the Mona Lisa’ of security barriers. The first line of defence is an imposing metal bar and if by some miracle a car managed to bash through this, there’s a contraption that resembles a sharpened dragon’s tail right behind it that surely could tear the bowels out of a tank. After that, there is another impenetrable and immovable reinforced steel barrier that would not look out of place at Fort Knox. But we are not done yet. The final act of this phalanx of security is when the car is swabbed for bomb residue. Now we are free to enter the parking lot. But wait, there appears to be one more hurdle confronting a would-be bomber in the form of a truck-mounted, heavy duty machine gun manned by a crew of finger-scratching commandos.
In this overly fortified compound, all these precautions would seem to be overkill. But considering the British Ambassador recently narrowly escaped being blown to pieces a few hundred metres up the road, its obvious that too much caution may not be enough.
I barely have time to drop my bags before my covert rendezvous with a supposedly senior diplomat, who is not authorized to speak to me on the record and will remain unidentified.
We sit down for a coffee and he gives me the lowdown on what ails Yemen. Basically, he explains, Yemen is home to a substantial population of jihadists who had fought, with the US backing of course, against the Russians in Afghanistan in the 1980’s.
The country is also home to 850,000 Yemeni’s who were deported from various Middle East countries following the first Gulf War because of Yemen’s support for Saddam Hussein.
He tells me that not all of these men are engaged in terrorism or violence but there is no denying that there exists in Yemen a volatile mixture of former jihadists as well as an a unemployment rate in excess of 35%.
Adding fuel to the fire, I understand that Yemen will soon run out of oil with revenues possibly drying up completely as soon as 2017. Compounding this is a population growth that continues to skyrocket exacerbating the water crisis in this arid country.
Throw in the fact that much of the population, including those in the capital Sana’a, are living at high elevations making it expensive and difficult to pump desalinated water to them and there is a recipe for a serious crisis.
“In both the short and the long term,” he told me. “Yemen is f*&^ed.” And who am I to disagree.
On day two my tour director, Mr. Ali and his brother Jalil, have negotiated the Iraqi Green Zone-like security measures at the hotel to greet me in the lobby.
Today we are off to Sana’a University to speak with the esteemed Doctor Ahmed Al-Kibsi, a professor of political science and an expert on the political machinations of his country. The professor wants to brush aside questions about politics and talk instead about what he believes to be the core problem facing Yemen, and other countries where terrorism germinates and that is poverty. “Fix the poverty problem,” the professor says, “and for the most part you address the terrorism problem.” He indicated that he had communicated as much with his former classmate, Condoleeza Rice, during the Bush presidency.
The Man on the Street
Confident that I now have my scoop, as well as the Pulitzer Prize in the bag, I decide it was time to let loose and see what Sana’a has to offer. One of the great things about visiting Yemen is that there are no tourist traps because there are no tourists. Of course it doesn’t help when the tourism boards’ de facto slogan might as well be: Welcome to Yemen – the new front on the war on terror.
With my two trusty sidekicks in tow, Ali, Jalil and I descend upon the old part of the city where we stop for a breakfast of scrambled eggs, tea and chapatti at one of their favourite restaurants.
After eating we make a quick detour into the kat market where I am told that chewing kat post breakfast is the in thing. Well, when in Rome. A nibble on the leaf leaves me feeling like I’ve just downed 5 Red Bulls, 3 Grande Starbucks and puffed a deck of Marlboro’s. I quickly decide that Rome is probably best left for Romans.
There are no bars, clubs or other gathering places where males and females might cross paths. So the big thing for men around here, at least for Ali and Jalil, is to hang around the markets looking at the beautiful girls. And while I appreciate feminine beauty as much as the next man, I do find this a somewhat strange activity given that every woman in Sana’a wears the full abaya in public.
We finish up our splendid and enlightening day on the rooftop of the Arabia Felix hotel, a landmark in this medieval city. Over tea, Ali and Jalil provide another perspective on the challenges that their country and its people face. Although not the official party line, their perceptions, regardless of their root in reality, are worth considering because perception is a powerful motivation when one is about to strap on a bomb.
They tell me of anger directed at the government for not providing the opportunities for employment and how families struggle to feed themselves and pay for medical care and schooling. The basic needs are clearly neglected, they say, and with an unemployment rate of 35%, there is certainly a basis for their disappointment, not to mention a fertile ground for radicals looking to exploit and recruit the disenfranchised.
It’s important to remember that their meager livelihoods depend on tourism so their attitudes may not be typical. But both brothers are steadfast in stating that they would never engage in violence and are opposed to anyone who does. However, they do harbour intense anger against the US and other countries that they felt were killing innocent Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Not surprisingly, they also express bitterness towards Israel’s illegal seizures of Palestinian lands and view the Palestinians as an oppressed people.
Yemen, as well as an increasing number of other countries including Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, and Afghanistan, are without a doubt canaries in a coal mine. We leave them to fester at our peril. Populations continue to explode while resources implode leaving families with no jobs, no education, no future and, sadly, no hope.
I am reminded of a line from a political analyst during the cold war in the early 80’s. “Communism is like a fungus,” he said. “You spread it around shit and it grows.” Terrorist organizations work under the same principle. They thrive in failed states where they can easily find a ready, willing and desperate audience for their message.
Perhaps instead of endless, failed wars on terror that sap resources and moral as well as innocent lives, we’d be better served if we declared war on poverty, injustice, ignorance and hypocrisy. I can’t help thinking about how attacks are almost unheard of on the hundreds of schools that Greg Mortenson (Three Cups of Tea) operates for boys and girls in deeply conservative, Islamic areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan. Education and opportunity is a powerful detriment to misguided militancy.
Like a rock skipping off the surface of a lake, I transit quickly through the palatial and ornate confines of Dubai airport. As I walk through the familiar and welcoming doors of the Cathay Pacific aircraft, I am once again snug in the embrace of privilege. But while I have moved on, the problems and threats of Yemen clearly have not.
The author, Paul Luciw, is the Founder and Managing Director of AsiaXPAT.